National Book Award winner Barry Lopez was famous for chronicling his travels to remote places and the landscapes he found there. But his writings weren’t simply accounts of his journeys — they were reminders of how precious life on earth is, and of our responsibility to care for it. He died on Christmas Day following a years-long battle with prostate cancer, his wife confirmed to NPR. He was 75.
Lopez spent more than 30 years writing his last book, Horizon, and you don’t spend that much time on a project without going through periods of self doubt.
When I met him at his home last year, he told me when he was feeling defeated by the work, he’d walk along the nearby McKenzie River.
“Every time I did there was a beaver stick in the water at my feet. And they’re of course, they’re workers. So I imagined the beaver were saying ‘What the hell’s wrong with you? You get back in there and do your work.'”
Up in his studio, he had a collection of the sticks, and he showed me how they bore the marks of little teeth. It was a lesson for Lopez. “Everyday I saw the signs of: don’t lose faith in yourself,” he told me.
This was the world of Barry Lopez — a world where a beaver could teach you the most valuable lessons.
Lopez was born in New York, but his father moved the family to California when he was a child. He would eventually settle in Oregon, where he gained notice for his writing about the natural world. He won the 1986 National Book Award for his nonfiction work Arctic Dreams.
At the time, he told NPR how he approached the seemingly empty Arctic environment.
“I made myself pay attention to places where I thought nothing was going on,” he said then. “And then after a while, the landscape materialized in a in a fuller way. Its expression was deeper and broader than I had first imagined that at first glance.”
In Lopez’s books, a cloudy sky contains “grays of pigeon feathers, of slate and pearls.” Packs of hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos move “like swans milling on a city park pond”
Composer John Luther Adams was friend and collaborator of Lopez for nearly four decades He says Lopez’s writing serves as a wake-up call.
“He surveys the beauty of the world and at the same time, the cruelty and violence that we humans inflict on the Earth and on one another, and he does it with deep compassion,” Adams says
Lopez experienced that cruelty firsthand: As a child he was sexually abused by a family friend. He first wrote about it in 2013, and he later told NPR the experience made him feel afraid and shameful around other people. The animals he encountered in the California wilderness offered something different.
“They didn’t say ‘oh we know what you went through,'” he said. “I felt accepted by the animate world.”
Lopez would spend his life writing about that world — in particular the damage done to it by climate change.
It’s so difficult to be a human being. There are so many reasons to give up. To retreat into cynicism or despair. I hate to see that and I want to do something that makes people feel safe and loved and capable. – Barry Lopez
That hit home for Lopez this past September. Much of his property was burned in wildfires that tore through Oregon, partly due to abnormally dry conditions. His wife Debra Gwartney says he lost an archive that stored most of his books, awards, notes and correspondence from the past 50 years, as well as much of the forest around the home.
“He talked a lot about climate change and how it’s so easy to think that it’s going to happen to other people and not to you,” she says. “But it happened to us, it happened to him personally. The fire was a blow he never could recover from.”
When I spoke to Lopez last year, he said he always sought to find grace in the middle of devastation.
“It’s so difficult to be a human being. There are so many reasons to give up. To retreat into cynicism or despair. I hate to see that and I want to do something that makes people feel safe and loved and capable.”
In his last days, Lopez’s family brought objects from his home to him in hospice. Among the items: the beaver sticks from his studio.
This story was edited by Rose Friedman and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer
DON GONYEA, HOST:
And finally today, the coronavirus has affected nearly every aspect of our lives this year, including our language. Every year for the past 30 years, the American Dialect Society has selected a word of the year. And this year – no surprise – it was COVID.
But beyond that one, single word that has ruled our lives, the pandemic has also spawned other words and phrases, like the before times. For more on the words of 2020, we’re joined by Ben Zimmer. He’s the chair of the American Dialect Society’s New Words Committee, and he’s the language columnist for The Wall Street Journal.
Ben Zimmer, welcome.
BEN ZIMMER: Hi. Thanks for having me.
GONYEA: So this is one of those stories that we always look forward to at year’s end – a chance to take stock of our language and how it evolves in the short term. It’s also generally one of those kind of fun year-end traditions. But this year I was, like, oh, boy. I don’t know if I even want to go there.
ZIMMER: Well, it’s certainly been a year like no other, and that’s been true for language developments as well. You know, as someone who’s a word watcher, this has been a crazy year. I mean, obviously, as soon as the pandemic hit and people were under lockdown starting in March or so, people had to come up with new words and phrases to describe what they were going through.
And often, these were very creative and innovative words that people came up with. But it was like we needed a whole new vocabulary just to talk about what we were all going through and the experiences we were sharing.
GONYEA: So before we discussed the winning word, give us some of your favorite nominees – those that didn’t win.
ZIMMER: Well, you know, we have an overall word of the year for the American Dialect Society. We, you know, voted virtually this year in a number of different categories in addition to the overall word of the year. So there were some interesting choices that won other categories.
So, for instance, digital word of the year – that was won by doomscrolling (ph), something that we’re all probably familiar with – how we obsess over bad news, just scanning social media and websites. Doomscrolling kind of sums up a lot of experiences for people this year. But by the end of the year, people were looking for something more hopeful, and so people were coming up with positive versions of doomscrolling like gleethreshing (ph) as something you could do where you’re actually, you know, reading some good news for a change.
In the most useful category, before times won. And that’s very useful because once we were plunged into this pandemic era, it felt like we were living in some sort of dystopian science fiction narrative. And so it became appropriate to talk about, oh, do you remember the before times? And we’re living in the now times, and we’re hoping to live in the after times. And so, you know, it was just a way that people were being playful with language.
There was also a lot of creativity involving Zoom, for instance. And so one of my favorites was a Yiddish expression, oysgezoomt (ph), which means you’re Zoomed out. You’re fatigued by being overexposed to Zoom.
GONYEA: So let’s talk about that winning word, COVID. Was there much debate? Or you said there’s a vote. Was it just overwhelming, no contest?
ZIMMER: There was a lot of lively discussion over what should be the word of the year. There were many very interesting nominees. COVID ultimately won, but there were a lot of good contenders. I mean, something like social distancing, actually – you know, before we had the vote, I would have guessed social distancing might have won, that if I had to bet on one particular choice, that might have been, you know, my favorite.
But, you know, social distancing did well in the voting, as did some other words, like unprecedented, for instance. Even 2020, the name of the year, got a lot of votes because people were pointing out that the name of the year was becoming like a word used to sum up all the chaotic feelings inspired by the year’s events. But COVID ultimately won out after a great deal of debate and discussion.
GONYEA: Language didn’t stop inventing new words and new phrases apart from COVID as well. What about words that you looked at this year that had nothing whatsoever to do with the pandemic?
ZIMMER: Yeah, there were stories this year besides COVID, like the presidential election and also the Black Lives Matter protests. And there were some terms – important terms that came out of came out of that as well. So, for instance, in our most likely to succeed category, anti-racism was voted as the top one in that category. And that’s the practice of actively working to prevent or combat racism. You know, anti-racism was a word on many people’s lips, particularly with the George Floyd protests this year and all the discussion about race that followed after that.
We also see another term related to race, BIPAC – an acronym for Black, Indigenous and people of color – which was a bit of a contentious term this year in terms of being what’s intended to be an inclusive term beyond just people of color. But there was a lot of discussion among scholars of color over whether this acronym, BIPAC, was something that, you know, should continue to be used. It has its proponents. It has its detractors. It’s interesting to see how terms like that can become very contentious and heavily debated. But that all is part of what made 2020 2020.
In terms of the presidential election, we saw some new terms coming up just while the election returns were coming in. So we had the red mirage followed by the blue shift as we saw that voting was skewing towards Republicans early on before more Democratic-leaning votes were counted because of the early vote coming in. And so we had the terms red and blue before to refer to Republican and Democratic, you know, leaning voters. But now those terms became used in a new way.
GONYEA: So I have a confession. I am already looking ahead to next year’s list. I am hoping the winner is something like family gathering or (laughter) reunions. Can you work on that?
ZIMMER: I wish I could make that happen. I would certainly love to see those more hopeful words be characterizing 2021. I mean, after a year of social distancing, replacing that with social gatherings would be wonderful. And we may need a whole new lexicon to describe that phenomenon once we are able to experience it again.
GONYEA: We are talking to Ben Zimmer. He’s the chair of the American Dialect Society’s New Words Committee, and he is a language columnist for The Wall Street Journal.
Ben Zimmer, thank you for joining us, and happy New Year.
ZIMMER: Thank you. It’s a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.